Scientific Creativity: The Notebooks of Rose Lowder
Tara Merenda Nelson
I was first exposed to Rose Lowder’s films in 2003, while attending monthly screenings at Pittsburgh’s experimental film focused micro-cinema, Jefferson Presents. The audience for Jefferson Presents typically consisted of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and experimental film enthusiasts. Screenings were loud and lively, and it was uncommon for a film to go by without enthusiastic cheers and jeers from the audience. But when a Rose Lowder film was shown, the room was inevitably silent (as are most of her films), and the audience became fully immersed in an all-engrossing visual experience: red poppies danced in sunny fields traversed by sailboats gliding on shimmering blue oceans; bustling city streets in summer intertwined with empty urban plazas in autumn; peach trees trembled between morning light and evening shade. Time and space juxtaposed in rhythmic visual patterns, and brought about an acute awareness of each frame of film and its relationship to the cadence of the overall composition. I was mesmerized by those first experiences of Lowder’s work. As an artist interested in the engagement between vision and the physiological experience of projected celluloid cinema, I wanted to decode the structures of Lowder’s films to better understand the perceptual dynamics of her work.
In 2011, as part of my thesis work at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I invited Lowder to the United States for a lecture and screening tour of Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. While in Boston she gave a lecture on her unique approach to working with 16mm film as a tool for perceptual experimentation, showing excerpts from her film notebooks to demonstrate her methods. Each hand-drawn page, Lowder explained, was transcribed after the film was shot, and served as both a record of the process and an illustration of the resulting structure of each individual film. Graphically complex, semantically rich and visually stimulating, each design revealed the complexity of Lowder’s techniques, and demonstrated the results of her experimentation with the perceptual potential of 16mm film. Since being introduced to these documents in 2011, I have come to understand how the notebooks are vital to understanding the phenomenology of Lowder’s films, and provide a key to comprehending how her work integrates her creative process with the scientific method.
In the opening sentence of Opticks, Sir Isaac Newton declared his intention to prove his theories on the nature of light and color—not by hypothesis, but through direct experimentation and observation.¹ Using detailed diagrams and descriptions to illustrate his procedures, Newton set forth an inductive approach to the method of scientific investigation, proclaiming that the only truth is one that can be directly observed. Newton’s notebooks reveal his dedication to recording and transcribing every visible detail of his experiments, sometimes through mathematical equations, sometimes through pictorial illustration. The resulting text introduced graphic illustrations that have remained essential to the study of the scientific properties of light.
Lowder has been a prolific practitioner of perceptual experimentation with 16mm film since the 1970s, and, like Newton, has kept detailed records of her research over the course of her career. Born in 1941 to British parents in Lima, Peru, Lowder now lives and works in the bucolic municipality of Avignon in southeastern France. She has composed more than fifty experimental films exploring the beauty of the botanical world, scenes of daily life in various towns and villages, and extraordinary moments of ordinary existence. Her films are methodically composed entirely in camera, using a precise, frame-by-frame technique which, when projected, culminates in an astonishing perceptual experience of light, color, form, and motion. In many of her films, she captures sequences of individual frames along the film roll, winding the film back and forth through the camera to choose frames selectively, rather than successively, as a painter would choose a point on a canvas upon which to compose. Using the framecounter on her Bolex camera, she selects and exposes each frame only once—no frames are superimposed with two images. To prevent exposed frames from re-exposure, she closes the camera’s shutter as she winds through the film roll to select the next unexposed frame. Her technique for arranging each film is masterful, and builds upon years of research and experimentation with perceptual possibilities that are uniquely intrinsic to the experience of projected 16mm film.
Lowder’s work deals directly with the dialogue between the filmic apparatus and the human perceptual mechanism. Each filmengages differently with the phenomenon of perception, combining distinct formal, structural, and conceptual parameters to culminate in a unique physiological experience. Her first film, Roulement, rouerie, aubage (Rotation, Wiliness, Paddle-wheel Unit, 1978), focuses entirely on two paddle wheels revolving in a canal near her home in Avignon. Using four types of film stock, chosen for their unique characteristics, she explores the relationship between the rotation of the camera shutter, the focus of the image within the frame, and the function of the paddle wheel as a formal and metaphorical visual unit.² The result is a hypnotic experience of form, motion, and texture that transpires in a gradual progression of visual rhythmic recurrence.
Lowder’s next film, Rue des Teinturiers (1979), was shot over a fivemonth period from the balcony of her home overlooking the Rue des Teinturiers. Using twelve rolls of film, she shot from a distinct vantage point on the balcony at different times of day, alternating focal points within the frame to extend the spatiotemporal landscape of the avenue for one, two, or three frames at a time. Visible withinthe frame are the leaves of a laurel tree in the foreground and a small section of the busy street in the background, but the focus is shifted between frames, effectively isolating distinct elements and perspectives within the scene. The shifting focus is juxtaposed with a nonsequential chronology to result in a projected image that incorporates a multiplicity of visual elements in unison: time and space literally collide within the frame.
In the Bouquet series (1994–present), Lowder has composed to date more than thirty one-minute films, each exploring a new landscape (hillside terraces, a field of wildflowers, goldfish ponds, fishing ports) and a variation on her frame-by-frame technique. In Bouquet 26 (2003), flashing frames of flowers and fields are interrupted by serene moments of farm animals grazing in a sunlit meadow. Bouquet 10 (1995) juxtaposes mountain slopes with seascapes, leaving single frames periodically unexposed to allow for an extended retention of the previous image. While subjects may alternate from frame to frame, the projected image is a single entity pulsing with multiple subjects at once, making the visual intensity of the Bouquet series extraordinary.
Though she often works frame by frame, Lowder’s films are not structured before they are shot, but are composed in original sequences that respond to opportunities provided in the moment. Lowder is precise in her technique while allowing for the circumstances of the moment to influence the content of each frame. This consciousness of the present is an essential quality of her work, and distinguishes her practice from the traditions of the Structuralist approach to filmmaking, which often follow a predetermined configuration of sequences. During each shooting session, Lowder uses custom-designed field notes to identify sequences in twentyfour- frame intervals, and meticulously records the process of the shoot: number of passes through the camera, frame intervals, frame count, content, etc. Once the film is shot, it is neither altered in the lab, nor edited in the studio, but observed by the filmmaker to determine the effectiveness of the composition—much like a scientist would scrutinize the results of an experiment. Like Newton, Lowder’s experiments are based in observable evidence, and her creative process is carefully recorded with graphically stunning detail in her notebooks. If the film is determined to be a success (a decision made by the artist upon first viewing the film), she then consults both her field notes (process) and the film itself (outcome) to create a comprehensive visual record of the films’ compositional structure. Consisting of both notes and images, this record is then transcribed—by hand—into her notebooks, creating a visual score that can be used to analyze and communicate the results of each film’s structure and the process used to arrive at those results. Some notebook entries contain more detailed information than others, but each entry identifies the same primary data set: name of film, roll number, number of passes through the camera, frame rate, frame number, total running time recorded per page, content of the frame, and page number. Depending on the particular approach of the film, the entry may also include information on focal length, date, time of day, and corresponding rhythmic structure. Most of the scores identify the chronology of the process in twenty-four-frame intervals, each of which equates to one second of screen time.
To date, there are approximately eight hundred handwritten pages of visual data from over 450 rolls of film, recorded in five notebooks—and counting (Lowder has been very productive in recent years, and has a backlog of films yet to be transcribed). As her technique evolves from one film to the next, the notebook entries also become more graphically sophisticated, incorporating color, text, and detailed illustrations to signify the content of each frame. Every frame is accounted for, including the titles, which are often incorporated into the film one letter at a time. The notebooks are most often used by the artist as a reference tool for her own records, and as a means to demonstrate the elaborate structure of each film to artists, students, scholars, and film audiences. Currently, I am working with Lowder to publish a collection of excerpts from her notebooks, which will include essays by the artist about her significant practice as an experimental filmmaker, and her vital research on 16mm film as a tool for perceptual research.
Tara Merenda Nelson is an artist, filmmaker, and the curator of Moving Image Collections at Visual Studies Workshop.
NOTES 1. Isaac Newton, Opticks: Or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions & Colours of Light
(1704), Project Gutenberg e-book, release date August 23, 2010, 1. 2. Rose Lowder, A Bouquet of Images,
DVD liner notes (Paris: RE:VOIR Video Editions, 2004), 16.